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Students Compete To Build House Of The Future

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 718 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... THIS SOLAR HOUSE STUDENTS COMPETE TO BUILD THE HOUSE
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 30, 2002
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      By Amanda Griscom
      Grist Magazine
      October 30, 2002


      At midnight one late-September evening, a convoy of 18-wheeler flatbed
      trucks carting 14 houses (some whole, some in parts) and thousands of square
      feet of solar panels rolled past the Washington Monument, drove along the
      National Mall, and headed up to the front lawn of the Capitol building. Upon
      arriving, the first truck in line barreled through a yellow ribbon held by
      members of a hooting and hollering welcoming committee, as if it had finally
      reached the finish line. But the race was about to begin.

      Fourteen teams of architecture and engineering students from universities
      nationwide had arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Solar Decathlon, a
      Department of Energy-sponsored competition to build the ultimate
      solar-powered home of the future -- sophisticated in design,
      super-efficient, and capable of generating enough solar electricity to meet
      the demands of a mainstream, energy-lavish lifestyle. On Sept. 26, after a
      week of nonstop construction, more than 100 bedraggled students and
      professors running on the fumes of their save-the-world adrenaline unveiled
      their entries in a ceremony hosted by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

      Shakespeare himself couldn't have crafted a more appropriately tempestuous
      setting for the opening pageant: Backlit by bolts of lightening and nearly
      drowned out by pounding rain, Abraham chirped, "Renewable energy is here to
      stay. It's real, it works, its future is bright!" The thunder offered a
      fitting retort to the cheery prattle, as if to scold the emcee for treating
      renewable energy in practice as more as a sideshow curiosity than a
      meaningful technology. Still, the ceremony wasn't all lip service: One after
      another, executives from the private-sector companies sponsoring the event
      -- Home Depot, BP Solar, and the American Institute of Architects, among
      others -- stood up and rattled off stats and pledges that grounded Abraham's
      flimflam in reality.

      "Solar technology is not 40 or 50 years out; it's what we call
      state-of-the-shelf," said Jonathan Rosen, director of business development
      for Home Depot, which gifted a $6,000 shopping spree to each team of
      decathletes and has recently expanded its distribution of solar products
      from three to 61 stores nationwide. Then came Harry Shimp, the CEO of BP
      Solar, which provided solar panels for the teams at a discount: "This is
      more than just an interesting technology. Demand for [these kinds of home
      solar systems] is growing at 35 percent a year." And in a little jab to the
      DOE, he added: "We hope the government will consider a national net-metering
      plan, tax incentives, and incorporating solar into all new [federal]

      Next up was Norman Koonce, executive vice president and CEO of the American
      Institute of Architects, that pillar of tradition representing 70,000
      architects nationwide: "We are celebrating one of architecture's most
      important advancements ... on one of the most prestigious pieces of real
      estate in the world!" he beamed. Koonce went on to note that more than a
      third of all AIA members now boast energy-consulting services and
      sustainable design experts -- a "considerable increase in recent years and a
      sign, indeed, of a growing movement," he said later in a phone interview.

      Some Assembly Required

      As the ceremony came to an end, the sky began to clear and the audience was
      alight with megawatt smiles. A brass quartet tooted the national anthem, and
      even the young, hipper-than-thou architects and engineers held their hands
      over their hearts and sang along. With that, the students paraded out of the
      tent onto Decathlete Way -- the main drag of the makeshift "Solar Village,"
      lined on either side with one-story structures sparkling like huts in the
      Emerald City.

      For all the sci-fi fantasy inherent in this event -- which Richard King, its
      director, called a "race to the future" -- there was a surprising amount of
      down-home Americana on display. Apart from Virginia Tech's far-out living
      pod with transparent walls, most of the homes looked pretty familiar, even
      with the glittering roofs: here a traditional colonial, there a
      Southern-style shotgun house with a solar-powered Airstream trailer. The
      teams, each of them consisting of 50 to 100 students and professors, hailed
      from all over the nation -- as close as Maryland and as far as Texas,
      Alabama, Missouri, Colorado, and even Puerto Rico. The decathletes spent two
      years building their homes and then hauled them thousands of miles onto the
      lap of the federal government. In at least as impressive a feat, they
      managed to raise up to $500,000 apiece in donated equipment and funds for
      their projects. (The shipping costs alone, in the case of Puerto Rico,
      totaled nearly $100,000 -- and half that for most of the others.) This was,
      in other words, more than a glorified science fair.

      Six members of each team were expected to "operate" (aka live in) the homes
      from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. throughout the week-long duration of the contest,
      which ended earlier this month. Architectural design, livability, and
      various forms of electricity use were evaluated in 10 separate contests.
      Electronic sensors and monitoring equipment took constant readings of 30
      "data points" in each home, measuring everything from air temperature and
      moisture levels to hot water and refrigerator/freezer temperatures to the
      amount of light falling in every nook and cranny of the interior. Even the
      number of towels and dishes that had to be washed every day were monitored,
      along with the number of meals cooked and the types of errands run in the
      electric cars supplied by the DOE for all team transport. (The car, like
      everything else, had to be charged by the rooftop solar panels.) To top it
      off with a digital-era flourish, each home had to run a TV for six hours per
      day (the national average); a computer with a satellite Internet connection
      had to remain on 24 hours a day.

      Building Momentum

      One of the judging categories notably absent at the decathlon, however, was
      affordability. While the contest entries did an admirable job taking into
      account the mainstream lifestyle, they were not as attuned to the mainstream
      budget. The houses in the competition were about the size of a spacious
      living room, and yet they cost between $150,000 to $500,000 to assemble --
      hardly a practical price tag for your average consumer, especially given the
      heavily discounted parts and the free design and construction for the
      decathlon entries. Granted, each home was one-of-a-kind and therefore more
      expensive than a mass-marketed version would be, but in most cases the
      technology on the roof cost about as much as the rest of the house. "I can't
      see solar homes as a mainstream revolution -- not just yet anyway," said
      Treylon Raines, 22, leader of the team from Tuskeegee University in Alabama.
      "It's just not economical enough. I've got about a $70,000 system on this
      roof and it would take me something like 60 years to pay it back [with
      savings from electricity bills], which is twice the guaranteed lifespan of
      the technology."

      If King is correct that the decathlon is "a race to the future," then it
      will have to be a future in which solar is cost-competitive with traditional
      electricity. Many people close to the renewable energy industry are
      convinced that will happen -- that prices for photovoltaic (PV) panels will
      continue to plummet, as they have consistently for the past decade. The key
      to economic viability and to making "solar" a household term, they agree, is
      acceptance of the technology by mainstream distributors, architects, and
      engineers like those sponsoring and participating in the decathlon.

      From an engineering standpoint, market acceptance hinges on solar matching
      or outperforming other energy technologies; from an architectural
      standpoint, it hinges on solar appealing to the aesthetics of consumers. The
      latter, in many ways, is the biggest challenge, which explains why the
      design contest in the decathlon was worth twice as many points as all the
      others. It was judged by a panel of six experts led by executives of AIA and
      celebrated Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, winner of this year's
      Pritzker Prize (the architecture-world equivalent of the Pulitzer).

      The University of Virginia won the design contest by a unanimous vote. In a
      later phone interview, Murcutt commented that, "Virginia had a design that
      showed that a solar home is not just about plunking a panel on top. It must
      be as poetic as it is rational. It must consider every aspect of
      sustainability, from the building materials to the insulation and ductwork
      to the way light is used. It must be whole-building sustainable design, and
      all those components must integrated in an elegant way." Green architects
      believe that all solar structures must be approached holistically: Before a
      designer even considers putting solar panels on the roof, she has to create
      the most efficient structure possible. What, after all, would be the point
      of buying expensive PV panels to power an air conditioner or heat a house if
      the fruit of all those hard-won electrons leaks out of poorly insulated
      walls and windows? And why put loads of light fixtures in the house (and
      expend energy to power them) if you can design the home to have abundant
      natural lighting?

      The Virginia team covered all its bases in terms of super-insulated walls
      and windows and energy-efficient appliances, and then they took the idea of
      sustainability one step further. They used reclaimed copper cladding and
      wooden trellises made from shipping crates for the exteriors. On the
      interiors they maximized natural lighting by installing floor-to-ceiling
      insulated glass on the entire south-facing wall and adding movable walls to
      create shade in the summer and let in light and warmth in the winter. They
      used maple paneling and translucent ceramic tiles on the walls to create a
      constant cozy glow. To add some high-tech splash, they put a mirror dish on
      the roof that collects daylight and feeds it through fiber-optic tubes to
      the interior for non-electric lighting. There was even a "smart wall" -- a
      large computer monitor in the front hall that controls all the appliances in
      the house. The team programmed it to change colors according to the
      temperature of the house (it blushes pink when the houses is warm and turns
      blue when the house is cool) to give a sensory understanding of how the
      house works.

      "Really we're trying to change every convention that anyone has about how
      you build a house, how you power that house, how your house actually
      operates when you are there and not there, how you relate to it, how it
      relates to everything else," said Adam Toffler, 28, an architecture grad
      student at UVA and leader of Team Virginia.

      The Future Is Now

      Toffler's sense of optimism and revolutionary spirit could be felt among
      many of the Solar Decathletes, but not all of them believed that the
      revolution was a matter of changing every convention. "This is not about
      reinventing the wheel," said Matthew Henry, 28, leader of the team from
      University of Colorado at Boulder, which placed first in the overall
      competition. (Virginia placed second.) "We didn't want to totally reinvent
      the look and feel of a traditional home, simply because we want mass appeal.
      We want people to identify with it and buy into it. Our original design was
      artistic and sculptural with curved walls and all, but we scrapped it. We
      decided to go for mainstream America -- lowest common denominator. That's
      where the revolution lies."

      Whether you believe that the revolution will entail a wholesale reimagining
      of the American home or a subtler shift to sustainable building, it's clear
      that architecture and the environment are becoming inextricably linked --
      and that the revolution, whatever form it takes, will widen as the decathlon
      student participants and their peers go off into the professional world.

      "The future is right here on the mall right now, all these schools and all
      these students," said John Quale, professor of architecture at the
      University of Virginia, "I firmly believe that more significant change will
      happen in the future of architecture with this generation of students than
      any other. These students really believe that ethical issues and aesthetic
      issues can't be separated from each other." The way the topics are being
      taught is different, too. Solar design is merging the disciplines of
      architecture and engineering. In the past, architects have always hired
      engineers as consultants, but a whole-building green design requires
      collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach from the outset.

      According to Kim Tanzer, who co-chairs the sustainability task force for the
      board of directors of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture,
      almost every one of the 120 architecture schools in the U.S and Canada have
      incorporated principles of sustainable design into their curricula in the
      last five years. At least a third have included classes dedicated to
      studying sustainability. But, she emphasized energy-efficient architecture
      is a whole-building philosophy, and solar is just the cherry on top: "This
      is a much more comprehensive movement. It's not just about adding one or two
      new classes but integrating these concepts throughout the entire

      Surveying the hundreds of students hammering together their mini El Dorado
      of energy independence, Matthew Henry of Team Colorado agreed: "In many
      schools, sustainable design is still treated as a specialty, which is a
      shame. They're looking at it as a perk and not a standard, which means they
      can't see the reality of the situation: You can't have good architecture
      without principles of sustainability anymore. Buildings that are efficient
      and respond to their environment are simply smart architecture."


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